Ireland’s elections punished the coalition government, disappointed the “official opposition” and allowed Sinn Féin the main Irish Republican Party to make gains. These reflect the failure of the Labour leaders to fight for an alternative and their collaboration with Fine Gael in delivering the austerity on behalf of the Troika.
In that respect the position in Ireland is not dissimilar to the situation Greece or Britain where the ruling parties were thrashed in the elections, or Spain where both the PP and PSOE lost big numbers of seats in the Euro elections. But unlike the Left SYRIZA in Greece or the right wing UKIP in Britain the major gains were made by Sinn Féin, the republican party which has made a significant breakthrough.
The headlines in the Irish Euro elections are that Sinn Féin is now represented in all of the constituencies in the Republic and in the North also. Labour lost 3 seats, Fianna Fáil 2 and the Socialist Party lost its only seat, although they won a by election for the Dáil (Irish Parliament) in the same constituency as their existing TD.
In the local elections Fianna Fáil won the most council seats shading Fine Gael, but Sinn Féin made big gains while Labour support slumped. It is noticeable also that “Independents and others" which is a catch all category, scored some 28.3% coming top of the poll above FF’s 25.3%.
More than anything else it demonstrates a loss of support for the governing Coalition, but for Fianna Fáil also, who have still not been let off the hook for the crisis pre 2011. For the Fianna Fáil “Soldiers of Destiny”, who have been the dominant party in the state for decades this is bad news as they have failed to make a big breakthrough with less than two years to go until the next election..
However, the most immediate impact has been on the leadership of the Labour Party. It is just three years and a few months since Eamon Gilmore stood at the Labour Special Conference in Dublin and argued for the Programme for a National Government that committed the Party to a coalition with Fine Gael. His argument was that the working people, the old and the youth needed Labour in power to somehow moderate the right wing capitalist policies of Enda Kenny and his acolytes.
Yet Gilmore has resigned as party leader after Labour was hammered in the local council and the European polls. Labour tally of seats fell from 132 to 50, while SF increased from 54 to 155. The Labour Party’s right wing programme and the record of its ministers in office have massively discredited its local representatives. Labour has been blamed for its leaders’ collaboration with the austerity. It’s been blamed for the continuing impositions on working people and for the ongoing crisis in the country. Far from solving workers problems as Gilmore argued the Programme for Government has become a shackle on the working class and on Gilmore himself also.
Already, Joan Burton TD has thrown her hat in the ring, but has been sure to say that she is not in favour of breaking the coalition with Fine Gael. That statement reflects the pressure building within the Party. Meath TD Dominic Hannigan has called for the whole Labour Front Bench to resign, stating that the whole future of the Party is in doubt without radical change.
As we explained before the Special Conference in March 2011:
"Sections of the Party leadership and some trade union leaders have argued that a coalition government would protect workers and Jack O’Connor has said that. "A balanced government with a Labour input will help to protect and create jobs, social welfare levels and public services."
But if that was the case surely the policy of “social partnership” pursued by the unions would have protected working people? The reality is that on the basis of the current economic crisis the ruling class have no alternative but to attack working people if they are going to preserve their profits. At every turn of the negotiations between the government and the unions over the past period the “social partnership” broke down. Any “programme for government” agreed by Eamon Gilmore and Enda Kenny will have more holes in it than a sieve.
But isn’t coalition “in the national interest”? The truth is that Labour would become a hostage to the programme of Fine Gael. Enda Kenny will rule in the “national interest” of the Irish Bourgeoisie and their masters in New York, London and the EU/IMF. The interest of working people is directly opposed to austerity measures, emigration, unemployment, wage cuts and 30,000 job cuts in the public sector. James Connolly summed up the situation in “The Irish Worker” in 1915 when he said “Yes, friends, governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class.” The only way to represent the interests of working people today is to break decisively with the policies of capitalist austerity and fight for a socialist programme. The experience of the coalition in Britain between the Tories and the Lib Dems has been that the so called “radicals” among the Lib Dems have made no impact whatsoever. The Tories have introduced swingeing cuts which will have a catastrophic effect on working people as they work through. The Lib Dems have supported them and have suffered the consequences. They have been the ones to take the blame. Make no bones about it, the FG leaders will be more than willing to hand over the most exposed ministries to the Labour Party. Labour ministers will be put in charge of all the “social” ministries, the very ministries that will take the brunt of the cuts." - No coalition with Fine Gael, Fight austerity. Fight for Socialist policies March 1st 2011
It would unnecessary to revise any of that analysis. Labour’s option was to decisively break with pro capitalist politics and fight for a socialist alternative. It is evident from the Euro election results in Spain for the Izquierda Unida and Podemos and for SYRIZA and the KKE in Greece that where an alternative is presented that if the alternative is strong enough and has a clear programme, that big gains are possible under the present conditions.
The situation in Ireland is of course complicated. The left groups in Ireland have a very wide spread of ideas and an extensive history. A history that is poor at fusions and well practised in splits. In the local council elections the People before Profit Alliance increased its representation from 5 to 14 seats, while the Socialist Party operating as the Anti Austerity Alliance won 13 seats up from 4. Both the Workers and Unemployed Action Group and the Workers Party slipped from 2 to 1 seat. Left independents who had previously been Labour Councillors such as Cian O’Callaghan and Dermot Looney were elected with big votes among a group of around 14 left independents.
In theory then the left won almost as many seats as Labour, some 43 or 44 against 50. But this doesn’t give quite the clear picture. It is evident that the left sectarian divisions between the Socialist Party and the PBPA remain. How else can we explain the fact that despite the likelihood of a Sinn Féin surge in the polls that the two main “Marxist” groups in the state stood against each other in the European Elections in the same seat? When one of them was defending a seat?
Perhaps of most concern is the purely reformist programme of the Socialist Party/AAA and the vague calls for Democratic control on behalf of Brid Smith in her election manifesto. For the SP, neither Paul Murphy nor Ruth Coppinger printed a single reference to a socialist programme. Merely a series of reformist demands. There is barely any connection between the SP programme and the position of the Irish Militant (when Militant was in the Labour Party) which called for a 32 County Socialist United Ireland. Even the demand for a Socialist Ireland is missing from the manifesto of either Paul Murphy or Ruth Coppinger. There has been some criticism also of the SP Campaign in the Euro election which was seen as less of a priority than the Dáil seat.
Yet Ruth Coppinger won the by election. The result was quite clear and we congratulate her. She will be a great addition to the Dáil. Labour’s vote collapsed and it is evident that Joe Higgins hard work over many years has paid dividends. But in the long run watering down the politics will destroy the SP, as by failing to offer a revolutionary programme the Party runs the risk of losing its identity as a distinct tendency in the workers movement. The PBPA do not openly associate themselves with the SWP, likewise presenting a reformist (although more left) programme.
The failure and collapse of the ULA over the last few years cut across any immediate prospect of a group like the Spanish Izquierda Unida or Greek SYRIZA emerging in Ireland.
Sinn Féin has grown massively in these elections and now has some 250 Councillors and 4 MEP’s across the island. More than anything else in the South this reflects the desire of working people for change. The route via Labour was blocked off in 2011 after a big surge in the General election. Neither FG or FF have anything to offer so under these conditions it is no surprise that SF grew. The huge votes for independents and the stagnation of all the mainstream parties reflects the crisis in the state. Ex Labour (and ex Green) Nessa Childers won a Euro seat once more in Dublin this time as an independent . But across the whole island SF has made the greatest headway.
However, Sinn Féin has demonstrated in practice in the North of Ireland that it is incapable of making a fundamental change to the lives of working people. SF will compromise rather than lead a struggle in the local councils and in the European Parliament. The forthcoming “debate” over Welfare cuts in the North will demonstrate that clearly.
All in all Ireland’s elections illustrate what we have said many times, there are no short cuts, but the working class will always try to find a way out of the chains of capitalism. Our role is to help explain events and to build a Marxist Tendency.